Every NFL season comes with handing out many major individual awards. It’s time once again for Sporting News to reveal our prestigious honors. The long-time process didn’t change for SN in 2021; all of the major awards were determined by peer voting from around the league instead of Sporting News’ staff opinion.
For Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, the winners were selected by who got the most votes from their fellow players. Only head coaches were allowed to vote for Coordinator of the Year and Coach of the Year. Only front-office staff and personnel decision-makers were allowed to vote for Executive of the Year. In every case, players, coaches and executives were advised not to pick someone from their own team.
Ballots were sent out electronically around the league with a majority of the teams voting before the early January deadline. Below are those results, including a few close calls and a couple of dominant winners.
MORE AWARDS: Sporting News 2021 NFL All-Pro team
Offensive Player of the Year: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Colts
Taylor gets the award in only his second season after running away with the NFL rushing title. The former prolific Wisconsin star, who turned 23 in January, led the league in rushing yards (1,811), rushing attempts (332), rushing yards per game (106.5), rushing TDs (18), total TDs (20) and scrimmage yards (2,171). He also averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 9.0 yards per catch.
With division rival Derrick Henry curbed by a foot injury, Taylor became the new backfield star in the AFC South. He is a highly durable and extremely intelligent player, wise beyond his years. Although a handful of wide receivers and quarterbacks had massive seasons, Taylor was recognized for being a healthy and dominant modern workhorse in relation to others at his position. Taylor edged out the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, who won the wide receiver triple crown.
Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, OLB, Steelers
In earning his first SN honor, T.J. Watt joins his brother J.J. Watt, who has been named SN DPOY three times. T.J. Watt, 27, led the NFL in sacks for a second consecutive season, raising his total from 15 to 22.5, which tied Giants hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan for the official single-season record.
Watt also led the league in tackles for loss again, with 21, after posting 23 in 2020. He accomplished all that by playing only 15 of 17 games. He’s become a beloved superstar in Pittsburgh, a franchise known for many defensive legends. Watt, like his older brother, probably will add more such honors to his case.
Watt earned more votes than some tough contenders, including Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, Aaron Donald and Trevon Diggs.
Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Prescott played in only a little more than four games after suffering a major ankle injury in the Cowboys’ fifth game in 2020. Beyond the long, hard recovery from that devastating setback before which he had started every game in his NFL career, he also battled a shoulder issue going into the 2021 season.
That didn’t matter as Prescott, 28, picked up where he left off in Kellen Moore’s offense to post his best-ever season with awesome stats in leading the Cowboys back to the NFC East title. Prescott threw for 4,449 yards and a career-high 37 TD passes, completing 68.8 percent of his passes as part of a 104.2 efficiency rating. He won over fellow major injury returnees Bosa and Joe Burrow.
Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals
It’s time to do the “Griddy” again as Chase followed former LSU teammate Justin Jackson (Vikings) in winning the award, edging out Cowboys immediate star linebacker Micah Parsons. Chase, who turns only 22 in March, proved his massive worth in reuniting with college QB Joe Burrow, helping the second-year passer break out while dominating the NFL with big plays after taking his final year in college off.
Chase surpassed 100 yards receiving in seven of his 17 games. He caught 81 of 128 targets for 1,455 yards and 13 TDs, averaging an amazing 18 yards per catch and posting a couple 200-yard efforts (vs. Baltimore and Kansas City). Consider Jefferson had 88 catches for 1,400 yards and 7 TDs when he was voted Sporting News Rookie of the Year last season.
Coordinator of the Year: Dan Quinn, DC, Cowboys
Quinn, 51, fell short as Sporting News’ coach of the year during his Super Bowl 51 run with the Falcons, losing out to the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett. He was the clear winner from Dallas over several others for this well-deserved honor. The former Seahawks DC delivered in his first season to lead the league’s best big-play unit, led by the rookie Parsons and breakout cornerback Diggs. Diggs had 11 of the Cowboys’ NFL-leading 26 interceptions.
Dallas was solid against the run and Quinn got 41 sacks with a strong front seven rotation, with Parsons moving all around to get his team-high 13 sacks. Quinn brought much-needed energy and a positive culture to a struggling unit. Quinn did get interest to get promoted as a head coach elsewhere, one year removed from his tenure at Atlanta. For the benefit of the Cowboys and coach Mike McCarthy, Quinn is staying in Big D hoping for a big second season.
Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans
Vrabel made history as the first coach of the Houston Oilers or Tennessee Titans to earn Sporting News’ ultimate sideline honor. Only 46 and just finishing his fourth season, Vrabel will be staying in Nashville for a long time. He led the Titans to the AFC’s best regular-season record and No. 1 seed at 12-5. That was despite a ton of offensive injuries, no bigger than Henry going down in midseason.
Vrabel has yet to have a losing season and his team consistently plays smart, physical football to overachieve and beat some of the league’s other best teams. That was more evident than ever in 2021. He beat out the Bengals’ Zac Taylor, whose team knocked Vrabel’s Titans out of the divisional playoffs. Vrabel succeeds the Browns’ Kevin Stefanski and also beat out multiple vote-getter Bill Belichick, his former coach while playing as a linebacker with the Patriots.
Executive of the Year: Duke Tobin, Bengals
Tobin, the director of player personnel under owner Mike Brown, also makes history. He’s the first winner from the Cincinnati franchise, which dates back to 1970, when it was founded by the legendary Paul Brown, Mike’s father. Tobin is 51 and comes from a strong NFL family, too, as the son of former executive Bill Tobin and the nephew of long-time defensive coordinator and coach Vince Tobin.
Duke Tobin aced the draft in landing Chase in the first round and clutch kicker Evan McPherson in the fifth round. That followed up in getting Burrow, wide receiver Tee Higgins, offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji and linebacker Logan Wilson in the previous draft.
Tobin also had another great year in free agency in adding defensive end Trey Hendrickson and defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton. The year before he added two key defensive starters in tackle D.J. Reader and safety Vonn Bell.
The Bengals enjoyed a quick rebuild under Tobin based on Burrow and the defense and this is a reminder he should have got more recognition for their winning teams in the prime of the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era. The award from his peers allowed him to edge out Belichick, too.